The Euboae Niketerion

Published in: Athens Annals of Archaeology Vol.XIX (1986) pp.114f.


Michael R. Jenkins


The twenty gold niketeria reportedly found at Aboukir in 1902 have been the subject of intense debate. Circumstances surrounding their discovery, and their artistic features caused many to doubt their authenticity:


"In the summer of 1902 there appeared in 'Paris a number of Orientals, of doubtful aspect and mysterious actions, who laid before the astonished eyes of the Paris experts a series of gold medals, similar to the ones found many years ago near Tarsus, but far surpassing them in beauty and boldness of their design. But the possessors inspired little confidence; the whole business looked too "fishy"... It was the astounding quality, preservation, and the bold workmanship of these medallions which prejudiced numismatists against them in the early days of their discovery." [1]


Championed by Dressel, and his later converts Mowat and Svoronos, the authenticity of the Aboukir niketeria remained a matter of some contention. [2] The "Aboukir Debate" has only been conclusively resolved by the finding of two independent niketeria which parallel types of the Aboukir find. One example comprises a rolled fragment, reportedly discovered in Asia Minor, which has been found to have been struck from the same reverse die as an Aboukir piece. [3]. The second example is, significantly, an extant, framed niketerion, found in Euboea in 1964 [4], and currently displayed at the Numismatic Museum, Athens. [5]. It carries an obverse portrait of Alexander the Great facing left, and on its reverse Victory holding a shield (figs 1-2).

 

 

Figure 1 -  Obverse of Euboea Niketerion

Figure 2 -  Reverse of Euboea Niketerion

 

 

Figure 3 - Obverse of an Aboukir Niketerion

  Figure 4 -Reverse of an Aboukir Niketerion

The most obvious parallels between the Euboea niketerion and those from Aboukir (figs 3-4) are in regard to their subject matter and legends. Portrait busts of Alexander occur on eleven of the Aboukir niketeria,[6] and Victory with a shield is the major design element of a die-type represented on three Aboukir pieces. [7] The legend of this latter type, , is repeated, in a modified format,[8] on the Euboea niketerion. While these features are in themselves evidence for a connection between the Euboea piece and those from Aboukir, an examination of the artistic details of the Euboea niketerion reveals an interesting mixture of masterful features and apparent errors, of faithful copying and simplification which give insight into the specific nature of the relationship between them.


The obverse design of the Euboea niketerion is clearly the product of a highly skilled die-maker. In its employment of high relief and plastic modelling, particularly evident in areas of the eyes, chin and cheek bone of the figure, the obverse portrait of Alexander the Great carried on the Euboea niketerion is stylistically most similar to examples from the Aboukir find. Although Alexander's slightly uplifted eyes, parted lips and predominant brow leave little doubt as to his identity, the characteristic tilting back of his head is paradoxically not apparent on this piece.
Several points of detail in the obverse design suggest the work of a technically skilled hand, yet an artist's eye still very much in training. Compare, for example, the helmet depicted on this die with one from Aboukir. [9] While the Euboca niketerion die-engraver has carefully described its various component parts; its decorated visor, ear-piece, chin straps, crest and tassels, and decorative reliefs of Pegasus(?) and a star, it appears most heavy and cumbersome when compared to the elaborate and graceful headpiece of the Aboukir type. Similarly, while interested in depicting details of the drapery and tunic, compared to the perfectly described pulling of cloth by a brooch, and the elongated and delicate tassels of helmet and tunic apparent on Aboukir types, [10] the Euboea niketerion die-maker was not yet a master of his art. Furthermore an error would appear to have been made by the engraver while preparing the die. The first section of the helmet's decorative crest is at a much lower level of relief than the rest, and the dividing point between these two is marked, suggesting that the former section was judged to be at an incorrect plane and adjusted. [11]

Fig.5


Comparison between the reverses of the Euboea niketerion and Aboukir types strongly suggests that design elements of the former were copied from the latter. Given that the Euboea piece is some 27 mm. smaller than the Aboukir examples, [l2] it is perhaps not surprising that the engraver of the Euboea niketerion chose to simplify his design by omitting the trophy and bound captives depicted to the right of the Aboukir type. Some points of detail, such as Victory's hair-style and the feather pattern of her wings, reflect patient copying, while others suggest a less careful hand. For example, as though lost in the confused detail of heavy folds of drapery covering Victory's left leg, this engraver, unlike the one who produced the Aboukir type, fails to suggest the presence of flesh beneath.


Whereas the Victory of the Aboukir type appears to be simply displaying a shield and its decorative figures, that of the Euboea type is actually engraving the legend on its face. This change has resulted in Victory's left arm being positioned behind the shield as she pulls it towards herself. It would appear that this differing action was the result of further simplification of the Aboukir design. While the 'message' of both types is identical (as exemplified by their sirnilar legends), by replacing the winged figure which supports the shield on the Aboukir type by a simple cippus, the engraver may have been motivated by the practical desire to avoid having to execute most finely detailed figures. A similar effect is gained by replacing the decorative shield figures with a simple legend. That this engraver had not achieved expert skill in the detailed depiction of the human figure is attested to by the ill-proportioned head of Victory on his work.


These various artistic features of the Euboea niketerion suggests that it was the product of an 'apprentice-engraver', copying to the best of his ability, simplifying and introducing new details when the demands of exact reproduction exceeded his personal skill. [13] Can, perhaps, the guiding voice of the die-master be seen reflected in the changed relief-plane of the helmet crest? The view that this example is the work of an apprentice is further suggested by the physical proportions of the piece. Does it not make sense that rather than entrust a major niketerion die to such dutiful, if inexpert hands, a die-master would satisfy an apprentice with a smaller, less important piece? [14]


The significance of the Euboea niketerion is twofold. As an independent find it provides irrefutable proof for the authenticity of the Aboukir niketeria, vindicating Dressel's faith in those "Orientals of doubtful aspect and mysterious actions", and their magnificent hoard! Secondly, various artistic features of the piece are testimony to the attempts, albeit some-what unsuccessful, of a technically skilled die-maker to achieve the artistic levels of the master-engravers of the Aboukir niketeria.

 


ENDNOTES

1. E.T. Newell, The Gold Medallions of Aboukir, AJN XLIV (1910), p. 128.


2. For details concerning the early phases of the "Aboukir debate", see AJA VIII (1904), p. 468, AJA XI (1907), p. 78 and p. 451, AJA XII (1908), pp. 214-215, AJA XIII (1909), p. 192. The first major work in the defense of the niketeria was H. Dressel, Funf Goldmedaillons aus dem Funde von Abukir, Berlin 1906, followed by, H. Dressel, Errata-corrige, Zeitschrift fur Numismatik XXVII (1908), pp. 137-157. J.N. Svoronos, Les medaillons d'or provenant de Tarse et d'Aboukir, JIAN (1907), pp. 369-371, was to have refuted Dressel's findings, but with Svoronos' "conversion" only the plates (VIII-XIV) and a brief note accepting Dressel's view were included in that volume of the JIAN. That the 'Aboukir debate' was till alive in the 1940's is attested by J.M.C. Toynbee, Greek Imperial Medallions, JRS XXXIV (1944), pp.65-73 (see especially note 43).


3. C. Vermuele, Alexander the Great, the Emperor Severus Alexander and the Aboukir medallions, SchwNR 61 (1982), p. 71, and C. Vermuele, Alexander the Great conquers Rome: The Survival of the Alexander Myth in the Art of the Empire, Cambridge-Massachusetts 1986, p. 67.


4. ADelt 19 (1964), p. 15 and pl. 4.61-65, and Archaeological Reports for 1965 ­ 66 (Greece), p.3, fig. 1. See Fig. 1-2.


5. It was while working at the Numismatic Museum in Athens in October, 1988, that my attention was first drawn to the Euboea niketerion. I wish to express my sincere thanks to the Curator, Dr. Oeconomides, and her staff for their kind assistance, and for the invitation to prepare this paper.

6. JIAN (1907), Pls. IX.1-3, X.1-3, XI.1-3 Xll.l-2. See Fig. 2-3.


7. JIAN (1907), Pls. X. 1.-2, XI. I. See Fig. 2-3.


8. On the Aboukir type the legend runs: (vertically left), (horizontally across the top of the field), ' (vertically right). On the Euboea example the legend runs: (vertically left), (vertivally right),
BA
CI
[?]
[broken]
: inscribed on the shield. The description of the shield's legend given in ADelt (loc. cit. in n. 4) is provisionally accepted, although on personal inspection of the piece the present writer was unable to observe the second reported line.


9. For example see JIAN (1907), Pls. X.1-3, XII.1-2. See Fig. 2-3.


10. JIAN (1907), Pls. X. 1-3. See Pl. 1.3.


11. See Fig. 4.


12. Dressel (above n. 2), pp. 9-10, describes the Aboukir flans as ranging in diameter from 56 to 60 mm. See fig. 2. ADelt (loc. cit. in n. 4) describes the unframed Euboea piece as having a diameter of 33 mm.


13. A similar view is expressed by C. Vermuele, 1986 (above n. 3), p. 66.


14. Dresset (above n. 2), p. 9, describes the Aboukir niketerion here reproduced as fig. 2, as weighing 105.06 gr., whereas ADelt (loc. cit. in n. 4) describes the unframed Euboea example as weighing 21.70 gr.


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